“When I went to the high school to pick it up, they told me I owed $4.80 for a missing textbook, and I didn’t want to pay the fine,” said Sams, 77, who still lives in San Gabriel, outside Los Angeles.
“I didn’t have a lot of money, and that amount would have filled my car with gas or paid for a dinner date,” he said. “So I figured, ‘Forget it.’ I walked away and went off to enjoy the rest of my summer.”
Over the years, Sams said, it bothered him that he didn’t get to wear a cap and gown with his classmates and that he didn’t have a framed diploma to hang on the wall.
“He always talked about it, and we knew it was a big deal to him,” said Sherry Sams, 46, one of Ted’s five children. “It was always a disappointment that he didn’t get to walk with his class.”
As the 60th anniversary of her father’s missed commencement approached, Sherry Sams and her sister, Sally Bonette, decided this could finally be his opportunity.
“On Super Bowl Sunday, he brought it up again, and we thought it would be nice to surprise him with a duplicate diploma,” said Bonette, 48.
In February, Sherry Sams called San Gabriel High School to explain the situation. She ended up talking to Veronica Molina, the school registrar. Molina was sympathetic to the situation and said she’d look around for Ted Sams’s diploma in the unlikely event that it still happened to be somewhere in the building.
Molina made her way into the school vault, which was dusty and filled with items from long ago.
“It didn’t look like anybody had been in there in a very long time,” she said. “I found a stack of file drawers, and inside one of those drawers, I saw a box labeled ‘old diplomas.’ ”
She carefully flipped through the diplomas, and a name jumped out: Theodore Sams.
She could hardly believe it. She slowly lifted the decades-old, sleeved diploma.
“I was the first person to open his diploma in 60 years, but it was in great condition,” said Molina, 36. “I was really excited to find it.”
So excited that she convened with Principal Debbie Stone, and they came up with a proposition: How about if Ted Sams marched with the Class of 2022 to get his diploma?
They would forgive his $4.80 debt for the missing textbook.
In mid-May, Sherry and her siblings surprised their dad with a video invitation to attend San Gabriel High’s commencement at Rose Bowl Stadium on May 27.
“It was the best invitation I’ve ever received,” said Sams of the video his family created. “Of course, I said yes.”
He’d often thought back to the last days of his senior year, when he and a friend had been goofing around on campus with cameras, pretending to take snapshots, and the school’s vice principal became agitated by the ruckus they’d caused, he said.
“Some people didn’t want their picture taken, and they were protesting what we were doing,” Sams recalled.
“We showed the vice principal that we didn’t have film in the camera, but he didn’t care,” Sams added. “He said we’d caused such a stir that we were suspended.”
His parents were upset with him, Sams said, but they knew he’d passed his graduation exams and they soon put their disappointment aside.
Sams said he went to work that summer at his grandfather’s window-display company and eventually started his own silk-screen printing business in San Gabriel.
He and his wife, Cheryl Sams, raised five children and attended all of their high school graduations, capping each celebration with a pizza party at home.
“I was always brought back to the fact that my high school mischief prevented me from graduating with my own class,” he said. “For years, it was a big regret.”
Sherry Sams said that when they first had the idea to surprise him with a duplicate diploma, they never imagined that the original would be found untouched and pristine.
“We were just hoping for a printed copy,” she said. “But everyone at the school really got onboard with it.”
Molina said she felt as though it was an honor to find it.
“I’d like to think that if this was my dad or my grandpa, somebody would go out of their way to track down the diploma for them,” she said.
Sams said he felt overwhelmingly grateful.
“It was pretty emotional — I could hardly believe it was finally going to happen,” he said. “After 60 years, I was really excited to get that little piece of paper I’d been missing since 1962.”
On the evening of May 27, he put on a royal-blue cap and gown and joined 484 other San Gabriel High graduates in walking across a stage to receive his diploma.
“I was worried that the kids would think it was crazy and they’d wonder, ‘What’s that old man doing up here?’ ” he said. “But everyone gave me a standing ovation. Everywhere I went, people were congratulating me.”
Stone said it was heartwarming to witness everyone’s reaction to Sams finally having the rite-of-passage he’d missed.
“The past year has been extraordinarily difficult, and having Mr. Sams at our graduation was just the story we needed as a graduating class and a community,” Stone said.
Sams’s children and grandchildren beamed at their family’s patriarch, Sherry Sams said.
“How often do you get to see your dad or grandpa graduate from high school?” she said.
Afterward, she and her siblings put on a traditional pizza party for their dad, with a few changes.
“We made it a pizza and beer party, since he’s now old enough to drink,” Sherry Sams said.
The family also added a few extra numbers on the strawberry-filled cake. “Class of 62/22,” it read.
“Everything was just perfect — what a wild night it was,” Ted Sams said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so exhilarated.”
“It was almost like being a teenager again,” he said.